It seems strange to think now but when I heard that Manchester United had sold Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m I was glad. He had stropped his way through that last season, but still amassed an impressive 26 goals, and was a crucial element in us winning that record equalling 18th title. Following the heights we reached in the previous season, 08-09 was fairly anti-climatic, in terms of what we achieved and the football we played. We were essentially an outstanding defence and Ronaldo, but that was enough to make us champions. As our players celebrated on the pitch after winning the league thanks to a draw with Arsenal, Ronaldo had no time for his team mates, didn’t take part in the lap of honour for the fans, and instead celebrated with his mum and pals on the pitch.
Now, to be fair to Ronaldo, we had always known that we were just a stepping stone for him and that the real dream was to play for Real Madrid. I didn’t begrudge him that. Whilst the fans would see playing for United as the pinnacle of any player’s career, that simply isn’t the case for all players and we should be accepting of that. However, the relationship between the Portuguese superstar and the fans began to sour in the summer of 2008, after he had significantly contributed to the second greatest season in our club’s history. He scored 42 goals in 47 games, a record at the time I was sure he would never better, including our only goal in the European Cup final. But then Ronaldo spent the summer cock-teasing Real Madrid and trying to manoeuvre a move away from United.
“Only God knows the future,” was his catchphrase whenever he was quizzed on whether he would be staying at Old Trafford. “I love to play in white,” he said when interviewed following a Euro 2008 game for Portugal, with a cheeky grin on his face. “The white of the national team,” he added with a smile.
It was one thing wanting to play for Real Madrid, but it was quite another taking the piss out of our club and fans. We were given daily updates in the press, with Ronaldo refusing to confirm one way or another what was going to happen, but making it clear that leaving the club was what he wanted. It was relentless that summer, a summer that should have been spent with everyone talking about what the club had achieved and what they could hope to achieve the following season. It was all about Ronaldo though.
Two weeks before the season kicked off, following a meeting between Ferguson and Ronaldo, he confirmed he was staying put. Sir Alex Ferguson had refused to cut short his holiday to speak to the player but once he returned managed to convince Ronaldo to stay, unknown to us at the time, for one more year.
“It wasn’t disloyalty because I got another year out of him when he wanted to go the previous year,” Ferguson has said since. “He honoured that and was fantastic for us. He went with our blessing.”
Like plenty of other fans though, I’d had enough of him, and was so disappointed with his behaviour over the summer. Still, any frustration felt towards quickly melted away in the opening few weeks of the season whilst he was recovering from an operation. United were struggling without him and whilst people still weren’t impressed with his carry on, we were obviously more keen to retain our title than we were to hold a grudge, and it became apparent that we would need Ronaldo back and playing well if we were to win the league.
His first league appearance came in a 1-1 draw away to Chelsea as a second half substitute towards the end of September and his first start came in the League Cup against Middlesbrough when he put us 1-0 up after 25 minutes. Ahead of his next game, against Bolton, he was welcomed on to the pitch with the “Viva Ronaldo” song from the fans as he received a PFA award for the previous season, and went on to score the opening goal and assist the other. He then scored 7 goals in his next 7 games. It would be inaccurate to suggest the adulation matched that of the season before, when it felt as though we were singing his name every few minutes, but there didn’t appear to be much bad feeling from the home crowd. Opposition fans, on the other hand, did their very best to remind us of his antics in the summer. “That boy Ronaldo, loves Real Madrid,” they would sing.
Still, Ronaldo didn’t seem to care less that we’d “forgiven” him and behaved like a mardy little kid all season. He was going to ground too easily, when he didn’t get a freekick he believed he deserved he would have a strop instead of just getting on with it and when he lost possession was quite happy to let his team mates chase after the ball to try and win it back for him. Whilst there was no denying what a quality player he was, I felt then, rightly or wrongly, that we needed more than that from our players. I’d still argue now that being a great footballer doesn’t mean any behaviour is acceptable, but maybe throwing a strop here and there isn’t the greatest sin one of your players can commit.
Anyway, the game that tipped me over the edge was the 3-2 victory over Aston Villa, which is largely remembered for that incredible injury time winner from a 17-year-old Federico Macheda. I realise I will sound more spoilt then ever when complaining about his contribution in that game because Ronaldo scored two goals to help us leapfrog Liverpool at the top of the table with just eight games left to play. But I was absolutely livid with him that day.
Fifteen minutes after putting us ahead with a brilliant freekick, thanks to Friedel picking up a Milner pass back, Aston Villa levelled the score. With half an hour left to play and United chasing the win, Ronaldo was attacking the right wing but lost the ball. Gary Neville, who was being played in the centre of defence thanks to injuries, was level with him and Nani was further up the pitch. Instinctively, both ran back to defend, whilst Ronaldo stood near the touchline with his hands on his hips, watching the ball disappear in to our half. It felt like the whole of the North Stand and Stretford End got to their feet to give him stick and order him to put a shift in. “Don’t just fucking stand there!” But that’s exactly what he did. Neville got back to attempt to block the cross whilst Nani (5’9”), reached Agbonlahor (5’11”) just in time to see him head Villa in to the lead. Ronaldo (6’1”) could have made the difference but he was still standing in the other half of the pitch. It wasn’t the fact he didn’t stop the goal that angered anyone, nobody could have expected him to do that, but the fact he couldn’t even be bothered to try, particularly when it had been him that lost the ball in the first place, was infuriating. It was unacceptable and something not tolerated by our fans.
With ten minutes left to play Ronaldo saved our skin, equalising, and making way for Macheda to write his name in to our history books. Looking back, it seems fairly daft that so many of our fans were riled by him that day, when you consider he scored two of our goals in a vital 3-2 win, but that frustration had been building up for months. We had seen him looking half arsed in plenty of games, happy to exhibit his brilliant skill, but not as keen to work hard for the team. He had been in Manchester but his head was in Madrid and I regularly wondered what was the point of getting him to stay on for another season (obviously forgetting how we had started the season without him!).
A week after the Villa game, Ronaldo scored one of his best ever goals for us against Porto to put us in the Champions League semi-final, then scored twice in our 3-1 win at the Emirates to book our place in the final for a second year running. It was a game in between these two that was probably his moment of the season though, when the Ronaldo before us resembled our hero from the season before. United went in 2-0 down at half-time against Spurs and looked as though we were ready to throw away the title, with Liverpool all too keen to take it off our hands and make it 19-17 to them. Just before the hour mark, Michael Carrick won us a (dubious) penalty which Ronaldo calmly dispatched. Ten minutes later Rooney equalised and then a minute later Ronaldo put us 3-2 up. For maybe the first time all season he really looked like he gave a shit, ripping his shirt off and celebrating as wildly as any red that day. Three minutes after putting us ahead, Ronaldo assisted Rooney’s second and United’s fourth. In most seasons during tight title races there is one game where you feel like that the title is won (last season that game was Blackburn away! Fuck sake) and that 5-2 win over Spurs was the day in the 08-09 season.
The season ended with disappointment though as United lost 2-0 to Barcelona in the Champions League final and Ronaldo reacted by criticising the manager’s tactics. “I cannot explain,” he said. “We, the players, were not well, the tactics were not good… everything went wrong.”
Enough was enough. Ronaldo had made all the difference to us winning the league, which is fairly impressive when you consider he wasn’t even at his best, but it was time for him to go. We had been singing “Champions of England, Champions of Europe” all season and just like we had helped Ronaldo become the best player in the world there would obviously be another player to drop off our conveyor belt soon, right? Who needs Ronaldo anyway?
As time has gone by and United have struggled to replicate the European success of 2008, despite another final in his absence in 2011, it quickly became apparent that actually players of Ronaldo’s ability aren’t ten a penny. In fact, one day, we’ll be talking about Ronaldo as one of the best footballers ever. It’s funny to think that back in his early years we used to cheekily chant “there’s only one Ronaldo” about our scrawny little lad who could run quickly and pull off a few stepovers, with the Brazilian Ronaldo being named World Player of the Year. Everyone else was calling him a one trick pony and Arsenal fans used to claim he was inferior to Reyes. But now look at him. I don’t mean to get gooey-eyed, and he’ll obviously never be ours in the way the likes of Giggsy and Scholes are, but we’ve seen him grow from a skinny little kid, supporting him through the dark days in 2006 when he was the target of misplaced hatred by this country, to become one of the football greats.
Time is a healer and whilst I’m fully aware of how irritated I was with Ronaldo in his last season, it’s hard to feel the same way these days, for a combination of reasons. Firstly, it took us three years to sign a true world class player after Ronaldo left, when we brought in Robin van Persie last summer, which has emphasised just how rare people of Ronnie’s abilities are. I’ll be the first to admit I took Ronaldo for granted. When a player is consistently scoring important goals for your team, it probably isn’t unforgiveable if they don’t always track back or go to ground too easily.
Secondly, it’s hard to recall another player who has left a club and still has such positive things to say about his former team whenever he gets the opportunity. Not once has Ronaldo said anything negative about United, but instead is full of praise, repeatedly claiming we are the only English club he’d play for and always giving credit to Ferguson for the player he has become. When you look at Ronaldo, it’s easy to see him as a self-obsessed ponce, someone who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to have strong feelings about anything other than himself, let alone a former club, but his respectful words about United blow apart the stereotype. He is far more generous than he needs to be, which obviously speaks volumes of how highly he still regards the club and how fondly he remembers his time playing for United.
“I have a sentimental attachment; I have spent a quarter of my life here,” he said after the deal with Real Madrid had been confirmed. “I was boy when I arrived at Manchester United and I’m leaving a man. This club and its fans will always have a place in my heart. I have learnt a lot of life lessons here, and I will never forget all the things I have been taught by so many people. I owe them everything that I am today.”
Everything he is today is 185 goals in 184 games for Real Madrid, which is a phenomenal record. However, whilst Ronaldo might be pleased with his goal-scoring, it’s hard to believe that life at Real Madrid has quite met his expectations. This is his fourth season in Spain and Jose Mourinho conceded the title back in December, meaning Ronaldo has just one La Liga medal to his name. This is a far cry from the three consecutive Premier League medals he won at United before leaving. It’s not just domestically that his new club have struggled either. After playing in the 2008 and 2009 Champions League finals for United, Real Madrid have repeatedly fallen at the final hurdle, losing twice in the semi-finals, which isn’t what Ronaldo had become accustomed to at United.
Another disappointment for Ronaldo will have to be his lack of recognition when it comes to the individual awards, with Lionel Messi pipping him to the post every year. The Ballon d’Or is yet another achievement he managed at United but has failed to replicate since moving to Spain, with him being compared too closely with the best player at his rival’s team.
“I have been in touch with him many times,” Evra said a few months ago. “He still loves Manchester United and misses Manchester United. He has done some incredible things for Real Madrid, he broke all the records, but they didn’t show him the respect he deserves. When Ronny was here, he got the love from all the players, the manager and the fans. He is a winner. But he likes people to like him. He misses Manchester United because it was his house. I always say I hope he will come back because this is his home. If he wants to win the Ballon d’Or he has to come back to Manchester United.”
Finally, the fans at Madrid are seemingly even more spoilt than ours, because they haven’t shown anywhere near the amount of appreciation you would expect for someone of Ronaldo’s ability and have booed him repeatedly since he joined them. In his first season he scored 33 goals in 35 games, 53 goals in 54 games in his second season and 60 goals in 55 games last season, yet they’re still not happy. The relationship he has with the fans is nothing like what he had at United.
“We know that we have the duty to put on a show but sometimes it’s not possible,” he said after getting stick from the Real Madrid fans. “We always try but at times the team are not playing well and the fans could give us more support. The Manchester United fans, for example, were very intimidating for Liverpool or Manchester City in those matches. I think that if our supporters tried to do that it would be much better for everyone and would give the players a big boost.”
The grass isn’t always greener, or as Ferguson would say, the cow in someone else’s field isn’t always better than the cow in your own. Ronaldo had to go to Madrid to learn this for himself, and whilst I’m sure he is happy to have fulfilled a lifelong dream, it has helped him appreciate his time at United all the more. Likewise, his time away from United, and the lack of truly world class players in our team, has helped us appreciate Ronaldo all the more too.
He returns to Old Trafford today and there will be plenty of people who are there simply to see him. People have been selling on their tickets for a ridiculous amount and if you’ve been looking online the starting price is £500. I remember seeing the photographers filling the touchline of the South Stand ahead of our Champions League game against Mourinho’s Inter Milan a few years back, so can’t imagine how much more attention Ronaldo and his team will bring for this game. It’s all about Ronaldo for some.
For our fans though, particularly those who grew tired with him in his final season, I would like to see a warm welcome for him. That’s not because we’re making it all about him, or see him as the returning Prodigal Son, but because Ronaldo contributed so much to our success and can’t speak highly enough about our club. Whilst the press might make Ronaldo the focus, for us, the game obviously has to be about getting to the next round. Despite Ronaldo’s equalising goal at the Bernabeu, we hold the slight advantage after a 1-1 draw, and Ronaldo can dazzle us all he likes, as long as we get the job done.
But for me, I do see Ronaldo differently to how I did a few years ago. Whilst I can’t totally ignore some of the flaws in his character, there is no denying what an incredible footballer he is and for a lad who grew up in Portugal, he has a brilliant understanding of our football club and what makes the fans tick. Whilst he was lucky to have the influence of Sir Alex Ferguson in his career, we were lucky to see him develop and blossom in our shirt.
“Manchester was my home and still is in my heart. I love it. Because when people treat you very well you never forget that. And I will never forget United, the people who work there and the supporters. So I am so happy to be going back to Manchester.”